Sunday, February 22, 2015
Famous Last Words is History: Glory O’Brien is the Future
Within our little West Edmonton Callingwood and Hillcrest sub grouping. Katrina, Suanne and I had little trouble choosing our winner.
I suppose it’s the worst kind of faint praise to note that I liked Famous Last Words a lot more than I thought I would. Alender did a pretty good job of creating characters that were intriguing and, oddly, kind of authentic. I throw that “oddly” in there because in spite of the fact that I kind of dig the character of Willa and I actually thought the dialogue was pretty well-crafted - with the exception of the overly schlocky serial killer Reed stuff at the end -the novel itself reads too much like a construct as opposed to a story. I’ve voiced this complaint about some YA works before, and although this is certainly not a problem unique to the genre, I do find it somewhat cynical when an author panders to an overly reductive perceived audience. Hmm, what would really get the typical teen mind a racing?Serial killers, Hollywood intrigue, passively dueling cute boy-men, duplicitous friend, family drama etc. are all, undoubtedly, viable interest points for many a young adult, but in casting so wide a net you’re inevitably going to catch a lot more minnows than sharks. Ok, I don’t even know if that metaphor makes sense, but I just think that maybe without so many moving parts we might have been able to engage in a story with more depth and nuance. Moving to Hollywood with mom and the new step-dad is intense enough, do we need to roll in Willa’s somewhat dubious fears that she may have killed her father? The loss of her father is profound and worth exploring. I want to know how a thoughtful young woman like Willa would process such a tragedy, but Willa’s foray into the spirit world actually detaches us from her emotional journey and, worse, seemed to be there simply to set up a tidy end to the Hollywood serial killer plot line. I guess I prefer Nancy Drew to Scooby Doo, but I felt vaguely disappointed that - and I’m sorry for yet another spoiler for those who have yet to read it - Willa needs to get saved by the ghost in the end. Any satisfaction we might have received knowing Paige gets her retribution is limited because we only know her second-hand throughout the book. I could go on, but despite all of this I think it is a book that many people will find enjoyable and Alender has kept her many threads neatly woven together, I just think she could have trusted Willa to carry the narrative a little more.
Trust in one’s main character is not a problem for A.S. King, whose Glory O’Brien is a really remarkable character. If someone had told me that I’d be championing a book about two young girls who temporarily gain the ability to see into the future by ingesting the remains of a bat, I’d offer an incredulous “Pardon?” But here’s the thing: that’s not what this book is about at all. That narrative device of looking into the future, actually serves to ground Glory even more significantly in her present struggles and allows us to see that Glory is not just fighting for her little space in the world, but she is fighting to save the world. If that sounds like it would be didactic or heavy-handed, it’s a credit to King’s skills as a writer that it is not either. She takes us beyond conventional reality to engage with some very big ideas, but those ideas serve at the pleasure of the larger narrative rather than turning into a lecture. The real genius of the novel is the way that King is able to use Glory and Ellie and their very realistically uneven relationship to explore some really nuanced aspects of grief and relationships. The dystopic vision that frames this novel is going to unsettle and probably turn off a number of readers, but I thought it worked in establishing just how substantial Glory’s personal struggles are and how high the stakes are. This really hit home for me when I read the author’s afterword in which she thanked her parents for “not succumbing to the consumerist pink nonsense that was shoved toward them from every direction as they raised their three daughters.” It underscored that this is not only an entertaining book, but an important one, particularly for young women.